This presentation was given at the 2016 Montessori Early Childhood Education conference in Brisbane. It explores trends in the education landscape and the implications for Montessori.
Slides have been uploaded with presenter's notes.
We need to recognise that our idea of ‘children’ and ‘childhood’ is
speciﬁc to our cultural moment. In the past, childhood has been seen
very diﬀerently - often with much less distinction between it and
adulthood. There was much less recognition of the unique
developmental period that is childhood, and young people were
expected to work at what we consider to be ridiculously young ages,
they were betrothed, and in some cases they even came to power.
This is Edward VI, King of England from 1547. Edward become king at
the age of 10.
This began to change in the early nineteenth century. People like
philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau and educator Johann Pestalozzi
are credited with some of the earliest modern writing on the subject -
speciﬁcally, Rousseau’s ‘Emile’ which was published in 1832 was
provocative in his description of the nature of childhood and the
experience of learning in a natural setting. The work remains a
inspiration to many alternative educators today.
If we want to look at the beginning of modern early childhood
education, we start in a few diﬀerent quite obscure places. As far back
as 1779 a daytime child care service was started in Strasbourg on the
border of France and Germany, but very little is known about it.
A little later, we ﬁnd ourselves in Scotland, where a young Welsh mill
manager by the name of Robert Owen (who, typically of the age had
ﬁnished school at ten) falls in love with Caroline Dale, the daughter of
the owner of a New Lanark Mill and convinces his parents to buy the it
When I hear ‘mill’ it conjures up an mental image more or less like this.
We need to remember that by this time the industrial revolution is
getting into full swing. But we won’t have an internal combustion
engine until 1860. And electricity isn’t going to be around until 1879.
Making hydrokinetic power state of the art. One of the problems with
this kind of power is that it’s diﬃcult to transport - you essentially have
to come to it.
The mill was operated by essentially a small town of about 2,000
people including 500 children. Owen was appalled at the way they
were treated and set about remaking the Mill and it’s township as a
benevolent socialist dictatorship. Over time, Owen brought in fairer
pay, better hours (8 hours work, 8 hours recreation, 8 hours rest),
phased out child labour and a introduced host of other progressive
ideas - and the mills were seen as a model society, visited by various
interested people over the years, including Nicolas I, Tsar of Russia.
One of the most interesting things Owen created was the Institution for
the Formation of Character, opened in 1816. The Institution oﬀered all
families at the mill free infant education, funded by the mill-owned
Someone later wrote “No corporal punishment was to be administered,
no harsh words were to be uttered by the teachers and the children
were not to be ‘annoyed with books’. The young were encouraged to
ask questions when their curiosity was aroused and, above all, they
were to be happy. There were no prizes or punishments.”
Around the same time, other infants schools were being started with
less progressive pedagogy.
Samuel Widerspin - an advocate of social justice and the education of
the poor - opened the ﬁrst of many in England in 1819.
In Hungary in 1828, Countess Brunswick opened the ﬁrst of eleven
Angyalkert (angel gardens) to care for the children of the noble and
And In Germany, a young man by the name of Freidrich Froebel was
beginning to develop a philosophy to childhood education, drawing on
the work of Pestalozzi.
Core to his philosophy was the belief that children have unique needs
and capabilities, and can best learn those things for which they are
One of Froebel’s innovations was the tasks the children engaged in at
his schools, and the materials they used. He called these his Gifts and
Occupations, each a sequence of ten elements, associated with the
developing skills of the child. The ten Occupations included origami,
drawing and embroidery. The ten Gifts are shown here.
Froebel’s Gift Number 10 - Points
Seeds or pebbles were popular for this gift because they reinforced the
connection with nature.
Froebel saw the power of learning through play, and the importance of
physical movement. He advocated a prepared classroom environment
in which the teacher is a guide - he used the metaphor of teachers as
‘gardeners of potential’.
Continuing the metaphor, Froebel created his ﬁrst
‘Kindergarten’ (children’s garden) in 1837.
The model was brought to America by a german educator Margarethe
Schurz in 1856, which inspired Elizabeth Peabody to open the ﬁrst
English language Kindergarten in 1860.
The trajectory of ‘mainstream’ childhood education in the UK, US and
Australia can be charted from this point.
This growing awareness of childhood as a discrete and important life
stage led Swedish feminist author Ellen Key to write the inﬂuential
book ‘The Century of the Child’ in 1900.
She advocated the universal right to childhood. She believed that
teachers should be mentors, not supervisors. And she felt that school
was not primarily an exponent of society's rules and morality, but a
way of creating individuals who can build a better society.
As The Century of the Child is published, we might cast our focus over
the Atlantic to Italy and Maria Montessori. After working for some time
with special needs children, by 1907 she has opened the Children's
House in the slums of Rome. She collaborates with Alice Franchetti to
develop Method Franchetti-Montessori, an unusually scientiﬁc
pedagogy of the time, with Franchetti’s name being removed by the
antisemitic fascist regime that would result in Montessori leaving for
After a brief period of growth, interest in the Method in America wanes,
particularly after the critical pamphlet ‘The Montessori System
Examined’ is published by 1914.
Back in Eurpoe the AMI is establishment 1929 but it’s not until another
thirty years have passed that the American movement is revived, and
the US chapter of the AMI is founded in 1960 and an article in TIME
magazine in 1961 helps the Montessori movement gain the inertia that
leads to its widespread presence today.
In 1963, a rift leads to fragmentation between the more conservative
AMI and the more progressive AMS. In 1967 the patent of the name
While much more is often made of the similarities than is fair, it is
important to recognise Rudolph Steiner as another contemporary
looking at more progressive childhood education.
He wrote ‘The Education of the Child’ in 1907, the year Dr. Montessori
opened the Children’s House. He established a school for children of
employees at the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart in
southwestern Germany in 1920, and in 1922 presented his ideas at
Oxford University. Inspired by this, British ‘Waldorf Schools’ began to
appear. There are now more than about a thousand Steiner or Waldorf
It’s important to note that Montessori and Steiner were not the only
educational innovators of the time.
Similarly to Montessori, Charlotte Mason based her pedagogy on
science - speciﬁcally on the brain research of the time. Establishing the
National House of Education in Britain in 1891 and writing many books
on education through until 1923 she has signiﬁcant inﬂuence on early
She was children as capable, unlike much of the common ideology.
Rather than text books, she focused on authentic texts - which for her
meant the classics. She advocated a non-structured environment, and
engaging with nature.
With work across many disciplines, John Dewey’s inﬂuence on
education was primarily through his writings such as ‘The Child and
the Curriculum’ (written in 1902) and the University of Chicago Lab
School which he founded in 1896. Again, his approach to educational
innovation was a scientiﬁc one, and he advocated for a more child-
centred philosophy, a more holistic approach to the learner, and more
experiential learning activities.
Echoes of Dewey’s work can be seen today integrated into mainstream
contemporary schooling, such as project based learning.
While all this was happening in Europe and America, Australia wasn’t
far behind. In August of 1895, a meeting of kindergarten enthusiasts
(after Froebel) was held in Sydney, and those present formed The
Kindergarten Union. They were led by the well known feminist and
educator Maybanke Anderson, and were the genesis for to growth of
early childhood learning in Australia.
Early childhood care and education was then really two streams -
kindergartens (with an ambition toward social justice reform) and ‘day
nurseries’ (supporting working mothers). Both were generally operated
After the second world war, the middle class became interested in
kindergartens - which were referred to as preschools and often parent-
run. In the 60s and 70s the government began to play a more active
role in providing some level of service - and at a federal level we got
the Child Care Act of 1972.
The sector has continued to grow, with variously more or less
While these forces may not necessarily be focused on early childhood,
what we are seeing is a ‘trickle down’ - from considerations about the
economy and the workforce, down into tertiary education, then
secondary, then primary, and increasingly people are asking questions
and making policy suggestions in early childhood based on what is
ﬂowing down from a macro level.
Political shift, closely linked to economic theory propounded by
economists such as Milton Freidman and Freidrich Hayek.
Key proponents were Margaret Thatcher, British PM 1979-1990
Ronald Reagan, American President 1981-1989
John Howard, Australian PM 1996-2007
…though a lot of the groundwork was laid by reforms introduced in the
Hawke/Keating years preceding (1983-1996)
Neoliberalism takes it name from the importance it places on freedom -
in this case economic freedom, that is the belief that an unconstrained
market is the best approach to capitalism.
Key aspects include smaller government, privatization, deregulation,
free trade, and reductions in government spending in order to enhance
the role of the private sector in the economy.
So how has the neoliberal agenda aﬀected education?
School focus on contributing toward economic success through
delivery of skilled workers
Education as a commercial product - students (or parents) as
Market competition and ‘consumer choice’
Privatisation of education
Focus on eﬃciency and productivity
Performance culture, assessment regimes and high-stakes testing
Importance of international rankings (PISA)
Neoliberalism is a broad cultural shift that is being brought to bear on
education - as well as lots of other industries. It is essentially an
At the same time, there is another force at play - one which is coming
much more from within… the voices are those of educators and
academics in the ﬁeld of education.
This force has signiﬁcant similarities to the progressive education
movement in America in the mid 20th century - but has moved on
enough that we might call it neoprogressivism.
Once of the challenges in talking about neoprogressivism is that it is
not a single, well deﬁned movement. It is made up of many voices, not
always in alignment.
To do it justice, we are going to hear from ﬁve of those voices - to see
the similarities and some of the diﬀerences in the rich discourse that
makes up neoprogressivism.
Education academic - He was Dr Ken before he was Sir Ken
Director of Arts in Schools Project 1985-88
All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education (led UK commission
Schools Kill Creativity (2007), most watched TED talk
Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That's Transforming
Author in US
No Contest: The Case Against Competition 1986
Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans,
A's, Praise, and Other Bribes 1993
Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Community 1996
The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional
Classrooms and "Tougher Standards" 1999
The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining
the Schools 2000
Executive Director of US-China Center for Research on Educational
World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial
Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?: Why China Has the Best (and
Worst) Education System in the World 2014
Counting What Counts: Reframing Education Outcomes 2015
Teacher in California, at Hobart Boulevard Elementary School in Los
Member of the Order of the British Empire.
Subject of the movie “The Hobart Shakespeareans” - annual outside of
class project to stage a full Shakespearean production, including live
contemporary musical numbers and dance routines.
Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire 2007
Real Talk for Real Teachers: Advice for Teachers from Rookies to
Veterans: "No Retreat, No Surrender!" 2013
Tom Hobson (Teacher Tom)
15 years as early years Teacher at the Woodland Park Cooperative
School in Seattle
Social media following of over 50,000
It’s important to realise that it’s not only lone advocates who make up
the neoprogressive movement. At a much more corporate level, the
Partnership for 21st Century Learning is a collaboration of
organisations including Apple, Disney, Ford, and LEGO. One of the key
outputs they have produced is a deﬁnition of key learning skills for the
And here in Australia, we are bringing in ideas like these. The
Department of Education is actively championing the importance of
these 21st century skills - but there is still a real gap in terms of how
classroom pedagogy is contributing to these skills.
So education is experiencing two very signiﬁcant and conﬂicting forces
for change - and teachers are stick in the middle.
Childcare is expensive, in high demand, with limited supply.
This is the discourse we read about in the papers - diﬃculty getting
places, high fees.
This only increases as;
- more women go back to work, and do so earlier
- there is increasing awareness of possible beneﬁts of early
- providers are subject to increasing quality control
In Sweden, the child Crèche, designed to keep poor children oﬀ the
streets, and the Kindergarten, to educate wealthy children, merged and
expanded in the 1970s and 1980s.
The result is heavily publicly subsidised EDUCARE.
83% aged 1-6
96% aged 3-6
Typically, fees are 2-3% of family income for ﬁrst child, then decreases
for further children.
Maximum fee of about AU$200 per month.
All of which make Sweden an interesting source of inspiration for the
UK and Australia.
We need to recognise that suddenly we have a generation of devices
which are intuitive and engaging for young and particularly pre-literate
There is an unbelievable amount of content - some terrible, some
Lots is user generated, breaking conventions of media production and
The are a huge range of custom apps - again huge variety of quality.
We need to understand the challenge of navigating possibility - both
for teachers and parents.
The Maker movement oﬀers opportunities for deconstructing
technology - and acting as creators rather than simply consuming
Technology is also key in the ongoing discourse around the
management of children.
Fujitsu are promoting wearable devices that monitor not only the
location but also the biometrics (pulse, breathing rate), reinforcing
ideas of a risk society and a culture of fear.
New learnings in neuropsychology, molecular biology, cognitive
Let’s just touch on three important recent streams of thoughts.
Rather than appearing as complete and fully functional, we now know
that brains are biologically built over time, from the bottom up.
Early experiences aﬀect the quality of that architecture by establishing
either a sturdy or a fragile foundation for all of the learning, health and
behavior that follow.
Sensory pathways like those for basic vision and hearing are the ﬁrst to
develop in the ﬁrst year, followed by early language skills and higher
We know that plasticity of the brain is reduced over time. Early
plasticity means it’s easier and more eﬀective to inﬂuence a baby’s
developing brain architecture than to try and rewire parts of its circuitry
in the adult years.
We have neurological evidence that brain development requires
interaction with caregivers - that we build capacity through ‘serve and
We know that our broader emotional environment is also critical. While
some ‘positive’ short term stress is important - and in fact necessary -
chronic stress can be toxic to the developing brain.
And neuropsychologists increasingly realise how highly interrelated the
brain is as an organ. How much its multiple functions operate in a
richly coordinated fashion.
From a neurological perspective we have evidence that our early
motional well-being and social competence provide a strong
foundation for emerging cognitive abilities. And we acknowledge that
the emotional and physical health, social skills, and cognitive-linguistic
capacities that emerge in the early years are all important prerequisites
for success in school and later in the workplace and community.
We need to recognise and understand the changes in social
expectations of early childhood services - particularly in the years
immediately preceding school.
The pressure to succeed at school - for reasons ranging from getting a
good job to simply satisfying social norms - continue to increase.
We talked about trickle-down earlier … we are seeing these pressures
trickle down into expectations of early childhood centres.
Increasingly, when talking about Montessori and Steiner as ‘alternative
education approaches’, Reggio is seen as the new kid on the block.
I’m not going to go into detail about Reggio as I’m assuming many of
you will be very familiar with it.
Suﬃce to say, Reggio is a movement emerging in the 1940s, out of
Italy. Very community driven, which has led to a much less centralised,
less personality driven - if we are looking for a ﬁgure like Maria
Montessori or Rudolph Steiner then we ﬁnd Loris Malaguzzi, but he
played a diﬀerent role in the emergence of Reggio.
Like Montessori, Reggio is play based, very conscious of the
environment, very student directed.
Diﬀerences include parents and the community often playing a more
active role in the classroom, the absence of speciﬁcally designed
materials. and training.
In Australia, many of the growing number of premium child care
oﬀerings are drawing heavily on Reggio - either explicitly or implicitly.
Only About Children - one of the larger more aggressively growing
premium networks - uses Reggio both as an underpinning pedagogy,
and as a way to style environments that are very appealing to more
progressive well oﬀ parents.
Echoes of not only Reggio, but also Steiner and Montessori in the
approach of Only About Children. And that’s not uncommon in the
more premium oﬀerings, targeting well oﬀ, well educated parents.
These radically outdoor early childhood environments started
appearing in the middle of last century, in Denmark and then in
In the sixties the idea spread to Germany where the term
Waldkindergarten was coined around 1968. They were oﬃcially
recognised as a format for day care in 1993, and by 2005 there were
over 450 across Germany.
2005 saw the ﬁrst service of this kind opening in the UK, and then
three years later in the US.
Looking at the National Quality Standards here in Australia, we read
that “Outdoor spaces with plants, trees, rocks, mud and water invite
open ended interactions, spontaneity, risk taking and a connection
with nature”, which feels quite aligned with this type of approach. We
also have plenty of bush!
It is perhaps surprising then that there has only been one ﬂirtation with
the model - in Melbourne where Wesgarth Kindergarten started a
‘Bush Kinder’ program in 2011.
“No toys, No tools, No art supplies. The children and adults beneﬁt
from using only what nature has provided.”
After enjoying some initial coverage back in 2011, nothing further has
been heard of Bush Kinder.
There is a new focus on quality in Early Childhood, as part of a growing
professionalisation of the sector - a sector that many have thought of
in the past as ‘babysitting’.
The Early Years Learning Framework is an astonishingly progressive
and aspirational document - given that it’s a government document,
and given the state of play in the average Australian Daycare Centre.
This is my son Jem. He’s four - older of two boys.
Now it probably doesn’t surprise you that I was pretty picky about
where he went for preschool this year.
Marrickville Council operates a number of public day care and
Jen attends Globe Wilkins Preschool - it is one of 44 services in
Australia rated as excellent by ACECQA - so it gives us a good insight
into best practice within a mainstream setting.
This is Wilkins Green, a space shared with the primary school for
gardening and raising chickens.
Here’s Jem - note the Reggio light table on the left.
There are three rooms and an outdoor area. After arriving at their
‘home room’ in the morning, the children are free to move around the
space at will (weather permitting). As with other Marrickville Council
centres, groups are mixed age.
Student can choose activity oﬀered throughout the day by teachers
The day is divided up by meal and rest periods (for those children still
napping), but other than that students pursue activities uninterrupted.
There is limited direct instruction, with a focus on exploration,
discovery and constructivist learning.
Staﬀ are trained early childhood teachers.